I’m So Sorry

Did you know that there are approximately 200 month-long observances to raise awareness, or to celebrate or commemorate an event?  200!! That’s an average of 16.7 things that should penetrate deep into your consciousness every month.  They range from the obscure (I’m talking about you, National Correct Posture Month, in May.) to the prominent (Black History Month in February or Breast Cancer Awareness Month in Pinktober).  Coincidentally, our minds must be more alert in October; this month takes the blue ribbon with 30+ reasons to be aware. Even if you were to dedicate one day in the month to each cause, you would still neglect a few.  It seems as if there is a new day or month of awareness every time you open social media.  Have you ever wondered why?  Why are there so many of This-or-That Awareness Month?  Why do we seem so concerned with others’ awareness?  Why do we feel the need to capture a closed mind and open it up to a world it might not have otherwise known?

Frankly, I think it is because we need burden bearers.  When we are walking the valley of the shadow of death; swimming in an ocean of poor life choices; trudging through a desert parched by depression; fighting just to get to the mountain of physical wellness, much less climb it; when we are struggling in life, we need those willing to lift up our arms, or hold our hands, or even just offer an encouraging pat on the back.  Unfortunately, burden-bearing does not describe our society well. Or is it humanity in general, across space and time?  Maybe that’s why Paul had to instruct Christians to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).  One would think that the bearing and sharing of burdens would be natural among Christ followers.  However, typically we are not as likely to be the Simons bearing the cross of Christ as we are the Peters watching from afar.   Don’t Peter’s clothes fit us all a little more comfortably? Hence the need to try and swallow the world in a cloak that’s far too big for its shoulders along with a responsibility to match it in size.  We (myself included) are more than willing to prepare a meal, send a card, as long as it keeps us on the sidelines without having to get down in the filthy mess of it all.

Among the many in the month of October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness. Honestly I knew nothing of its existence in any official capacity until I found myself cleaning up the devastation in the wake of my own storm.  Now I share it openly. Why? Partially because I need for others to understand without judgment when I still cry–sometimes uncontrollably–almost three years later.  I need for them to accept that one child doesn’t replace another. I need for them to know that my Angel Baby still frequents my dreams. I need their compassion when they see me holding my beautiful baby boy with love bursting from every seam of my heart and tears still trailing from my eyes.  I need for them to know that while they see my three babies together, in my mind’s eye I still see four, and I often wonder how different our family dynamic would be with a 2 ½ year old princess in the mix. I yearn for understanding, for acceptance, for knowledge, or even simply for…awareness.

It was a long, long time into the grief process before I grasped the magnitude of the fact that I was already wrapped in the awareness of the only One that matters.  When no one else understands my sorrow, He does.  He prescribed the medicine that heals a woman’s sorrow in childbirth (John 16:21).  When that medicine is withheld for whatever reason, He understands that the sorrow remains.  When no one else knows my inward battle for contentment, He does.  He Himself matched the barren womb to a fire, a land bereft of water, even the very grave–four things that never say “Enough” (Proverbs 30:15-16). {**Please note that I am in no way comparing my journey with that of a woman struggling with infertility.  When I saw the ultrasound screen the night after Thea was born, it was completely void of life–life that had filled it only hours before.  I have often read the word “barren” from that perspective–void of life–since her loss.  If infertility is your struggle, while I can’t say that I understand it fully, I know that there is extreme pain–even grief–associated with it, and I hurt for you.  And, more importantly, God knows, too.**}

However, the most affirming experience occurred last fall.  During our Bible time one morning, I was working with Eli on his Bible Bowl questions.  Since he needed my attention, I had Eden busy writing a card. She chose to make one for a recently widowed member of our congregation.  I told her it was a fantastic idea and busied myself with Eli, Paul, and the Corinthians. Very soon, I heard her little voice. “Mama? How do you spell ‘grieve’?”  I answered absent-mindedly, still absorbed in Bible Bowl. The word kept knocking on the door of my mind, though, and once I allowed it inside, I realized what strange diction this was for a five year old.  Curious, I peeked over her shoulder and read the words: “Dear Mrs. Friend, I am so sorry that you have to grieve.” I gave her a little squeeze, tears spilling down my cheeks. “What is it, Mama? Is it bad?”  She thought that there was something wrong with what she’d written. “Oh no!” I reassured her. “I think your words are perfect.”

Several months prior to this event, I’d begun to wonder if at times there wasn’t something in Eden’s words with special meaning.  (It sounds crazy, I know, but if I could share all the times that one small, seemingly out-of-place line from her lips spoke exactly the words that my heart needed to hear in that moment, you might be almost as convinced as I am.)  So many times, those words were, in the most realistic sense, a gift from God.  Because of that, any time she said something that particularly caught my attention, I turned it over and over again in my mind.  I did the same with her written message. I was continually astounded by its simple perfection. “These,” I thought, “are the perfect words for someone who is grieving.  No attempts to explain grief away, no empty cliches. Just simple and perfect.”  It took several more days, however, for me to realize that they were also (once again) the perfect words for me.

About a week later, I heard Eli’s frantic voice tearing up our basement stairs.  My heart froze as I threw the door open to meet him, preparing myself for what he was about to report.  “Mommy, I can’t find Cluck! I counted the chickens and there were only nine of them. I can’t find Cluck!  Do you think he’s dead? I know he’s dead!”   It took several minutes for me to calm him enough to process through his words.  Eventually, I convinced him that Cluck was probably just in the coop and hadn’t come out with the other chickens yet.  Still spooked, Eden accompanied him as he finished feeding the chickens and gathering the eggs. It didn’t take long before they both returned, screaming in sheer panic.  “I was right, Mommy! He is dead!  And I saw him!”  They were both sobbing uncontrollably.  I gathered them both in my arms, and we all sat right where we were, at the top of the basement stairs.

I felt tears stinging my face as I soothed.  And I thought, “Really, Jamie?! You’re going to cry over a chicken?!”  And then I heard myself whisper, “I’m so sorry.”  Suddenly, Eden’s words came flooding back to me. I wasn’t crying over the chicken, I was crying over my Little Chicks, Eli and Eden.  You see, that word “dead” strikes a discordant toll in our home.  Yes, it was just a chicken, but death has touched the lives of those poor babies in ways that it hadn’t mine at their same age.  They understood it in ways that most children don’t because thankfully, most children don’t have to.  As I watched them mourn a silly chicken, my tears mingled with theirs because I was so sorry that they had to grieve.

It struck me that my Jesus loves me far more perfectly than I love my babies.  My mind raced to a familiar story of our Lord, who witnessed the grief of His dear friends Mary and Martha over the loss of their brother, Lazarus.  Jesus knew the Grand Finale, and He even knew that this separation was ultimately for their good and the Father’s glory…yet He wept. Surely he wasn’t weeping over Lazarus.  Yes, Lazarus was His friend whom He dearly loved, but He knew that Lazarus would soon awaken and walk among them again. As He watched them mourn their brother, His tears mingled with theirs because He was so sorry that they had to grieve.

All the pieces began to fit together perfectly–Eden’s words of condolence, the chicken, the story of Lazarus.  In that moment, Jesus said to me, “Jamie, I’m so sorry that you’ve had to grieve. For these two years you’ve been grieving so hard.  And it has broken My heart for you.  Death was never intended to be part of this story, and it hurts me to see you broken by it.  I’m just so sorry.” I looked again at Eli and Eden gathered there in my arms. In the same way, I felt as if I had been gathered into the arms of our loving Lord as He soothed my grieving heart.

Dear one, if you are grieving; if you are yearning for understanding, acceptance, knowledge, awareness, know that you have it already.  From the One that matters most.  Run to Him and let Him dry your tears.  He is so sorry that you have to grieve.

We ARE a Family of Six

My arms wrap around a large basketball belly (Let’s be real…it’s a beach ball.) in order to reach the laptop that is running out of room in its home.  God has been so faithful in seeing us through every single milestone–large and small–of this pregnancy. I was humbled to tears two weeks ago when I realized, at 37 weeks, that we were praying through our last big milestone.  There have been so many along the way that standing near the end of the road just feels surreal. Now we wait. And trust. To be honest, I’m thankful for a little more time. There is one more thing that I had hoped to share before we meet Chet face to face.  It is this very simple but often neglected truth that we are–at this moment, with only four sets of praying hands among us, four mouths to feed, four pairs of feet to carry us on our lives’ journeys–we are presently a family of SIX.

Collectively we pray for the individual members of our family every day.  Eden’s request typically follows a predictable pattern, with only a few variations here and there. “Please be with Mommy and Daddy, Eli, and me, Thea and Baby Berry as we lost Thea and we’re getting ready for Baby Berry.”  It steals my breath; she prays for Thea. Every time. This is not a habit that she learned from me. I have petitioned God on Thea’s behalf.  Maybe it’s silly, but there have been times when I’ve asked Him to hold her especially close, sing her a lullaby, share with her something that we are thinking, feeling, or doing, let her know how much she impacts our lives.  However, I don’t pray for her in the same ways that I do for Eli and Eden. I know that she has God’s love, guidance, and protection in ways that they don’t yet.  She is safe in a way that they are not. Those truths influence the direction of my prayers for her.  Not to mention, those prayers for Thea are some of the most intimate prayers that I offer from the very depths of my soul.  I don’t recall ever sharing them with anyone, especially not the kids.  But Eden never skips over her little sister in prayer.  When she is tasked with praying for our family, she always remembers our Thea girl, because she is a natural part of our family to Eden.  I figure that one day she will outgrow or out-think her need for it.  Until that time, I certainly won’t be the one to take that away from her.

There will never be a time when Thea is not acknowledged in this home as part of our family.  Her name is inscribed on the jewelry that I wear, just as it is forever inscribed on each of our hearts.  The fact that her physical presence isn’t with us is by no means reason to wipe her existence from our lives or our family.  In much the same way, we already count Chet as a member of the Powell tribe.

Almost a year ago now, the kids and I were preparing to meet my sister and her family for a trip to the zoo.  At the time God was growing a beautiful little life inside of her.  Eden made this simple observation: “They’re a family of four just like us!”  She paused for a moment of thought and then, “Well…not exactly like us.”  Here I thought she would insert the distinction  that their baby had not yet been born, but instead she continued, “We have a baby in Heaven,  But we can take her EVERYWHERE! And she’s really light!” (When Eden gets sad about not having Thea to hold, I remind her that we can hold her in our hearts ALWAYS.)

My initial response to her words was wonder.  That and gratitude. I marvel and am so thankful that even at five years old, she already recognized and acknowledged the beauty and sanctity of life, even in its earliest stages.  In Eden’s mind they weren’t waiting for the baby to join their family through birth.  There was no waiting for them to be a family of four; they simply were, even with three months remaining in the pregnancy.

I often think about how we use this or similar terminology, “We are expecting a baby” when the truth is, we already have one, he or she is just not yet there to hold in our arms.  I see pictures of couples and families the night before a scheduled birth that are captioned, “Last night as a family of __________”.   I understand the sentiment behind them, and I don’t fault them at all. However, the truth is, our hearts made room and our families grew by one the moment we saw that little indicator on the stick.  Just something to consider: might we better champion the battle for the sanctity of life if those of us who believe so strongly in it more consistently acknowledged it from the beginning?

Every life is a gift, every child a blessing, regardless of age or gestational development.  When you see our family with your physical eyes, you will only see two of those gifts, but truthfully there are four.  Lord willing, in the very near future you will see a third.  However, if you look with your heart, even now you will see four of them, and six members of our family.

Great is HIS Faithfulness: And His Name is…

I’ve been fascinated with names this year.  I have always believed that a name is a gift and should be chosen with discretion.  However, as this year has progressed, I’ve wondered if just maybe it might be even more than that–maybe more than just a gift; something that carries meaning and purpose; something that is important to the bearer, the bestower, and maybe even to the Father.  

It first struck me early in the year as I read about the high priestly garments in the book of Exodus–the shoulder pieces of his ephod and the breastpiece of judgment over his heart were both engraved with the names of the sons of Israel (Ex. 28:11- 13, 29).  But the reason given for it was what most intrigued me: “to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD.”  Surely God doesn’t need a reminder!  Still He requested a specific act in order to bring the people into a “regular remembrance.”  I considered the importance of praying for people by name in order to bring them into a regular remembrance before His throne.  Armed with this conviction, I was determined to have names chosen by the time we learned gender so that this babe could be brought to regular remembrance before his Father by name.

On Christmas day, upon learning of the existence of this child, I knew the name…for a girl.  We would name her Faith Noelle.  The previous two plus years had been such a journey of faith for our entire family, and obviously, Noelle would commemorate the fact that she was our Christmas gift in 2017.  For a boy, we had no idea. That would surely determine the gender of this baby, I thought, as we had always chosen a name for the opposite gender.  As early as 14 weeks, we were fairly confident that our luck had followed us into this fourth pregnancy.  By 18 weeks, we were certain, still with no name to bring before the Father.

We could have just chosen one.  We had a list all along. However, with every one there was something holding us back.  Maybe I obsessed over it a bit too much, but that meaning was so important to me!  I agonized over the story of Nabal and Abigail. After watching over a very rich Nabal’s shepherds and livestock in the wilderness, David requested of him to spare any extra that he might have on hand for his men.  Nabal denied his request and returned David’s good with evil, and David determined to punish him by taking his life. When his discerning and beautiful wife Abigail interceded on his behalf, her words haunted me, “As his name is, so is he.  Nabal is his name {Nabal means fool.}, and folly is with him” (I Samuel 25:25). As his name is, so is he.  I wanted this to be said of our son one day, only from a positive perspective.

The book of First Chronicles begins with lists of genealogies (nine chapters’ worth!).  You will find detailed lists of the descendants from Adam to Abraham, from Abraham to Jacob, from each of the 12 sons of Israel.  There are genealogies and descendants of the Davidic line and that of King Saul. Needless to say, it can be rather tedious reading. However, in the midst of one of those tedious repetitive lists–the sons of ____: _____, _____, and _____; the sons of _____: _____ and _____, there’s a two-verse pause to tell the story of a man named Jabez.  According to Scripture, he was “more honorable than his brothers”.  Maybe that’s why there was more to his biography than a mention of his name.  His mother had named him Jabez because she “bore him in pain” (I Chron. 4:9). At some point later in his life, he cried out to God for blessing, that God’s hand would be with him, to keep him from harm so that it might not “bring him…pain!” (vv. 10-11).  I would say that perhaps at least Jabez assigned meaning to his name that he carried with him throughout his life.  But the crazy part? God validated this fact because He “granted what he asked.” Maybe there was more than just human superstition behind Jabez’s request.  Perhaps a name is not only meaningful but also powerful.  

No pressure.  I searched through some of my favorite Scriptures, seeking out powerful words whose Hebrew or Greek equivalent might be suitable for a name.  I found several that would make beautiful girl names.  I wrestled with the word chesed for weeks.  It is Hebrew in origin and most often translated “steadfast love” or “mercy”.  I reflected over the steadfast love that God has shown our family from the beginning, those verses in Lamentations 3 that had been so instrumental in the very early days of my healing.  Try as I might, though, I could not work it into a suitable boy’s name. I wanted meaningful, but I didn’t want to punish a child by giving him such an unusual name that no one knew how even to begin pronouncing it.

On Sunday night, July 1, our minister delivered a lesson on “The Faithfulness of God” from Lamentations 3.  From the beginning, I braced myself, knowing that this would be an emotional ride.  He spoke of the despair of the prophet Jeremiah as he looked around and saw his city, God’s city, Jerusalem, completely devastated–the houses, the streets, the very temple where God’s presence resided were left in rubble.  Oh, how I had identified with his pain as I read only months after my heart had been crushed and itself left in a pile of rubble! Yet in the middle of that chapter so filled with despair, there is hope (Lam. 3:21)!  And it begins with these memorable verses:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

   his mercies never come to an end;

23 they are new every morning;

   great is your faithfulness.

24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,

   “therefore I will hope in him.”

He spoke of the Hebrew word chesed.  There it was, in all its meaning and full of power.  They were words and ideas that I knew all too well, but hearing them all was so reaffirming.

One thing, however, that was not as familiar to me was the fact that this chapter of Lamentations was written as an acrostic.  There are 66 verses, each triplet of verses corresponding alphabetically with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  I thought again about verses 22-24, knowing that verse 22 began with the word chesed.  “I wonder about the Hebrew letter that corresponds with these three verses.”  I Googled it (during worship, I admit, but I was so excited!), and there it was.

                              The steadfast love the Lord never ceases;

                                                              His mercies never come to an end;

                               They are new every morning;

                                                              GREAT is your faithfulness;

                               “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul.

                                                               “Therefore, I will hope in HIM.”

I knew almost immediately that I was staring down at the name of our son.  But before I could claim it, I also knew that it had to pass the family test.  Eden has approved almost every name we’ve tossed in her direction. She’s so in love with this baby that she doesn’t even care what we call him!  Darrell said, “I like that. It’s kinda cool” (his one request in the Name Game). It even has a bit of an Old West flare to it–always a win with Darrell.  He thought it was suitable for a baby boy and a good, strong man’s name.  Eli was the hardest to convince.  Even though it was a real name and not something that I was just squeezing into the mold of something somewhat resembling a name, it was just too different, he said.  However, when I told him that as the 8th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it also represents the number 8 (his favorite number), he was all in, too.

We are eagerly anticipating the day when we are able to introduce you formally to our fourth arrow and second son,

Chet Austin Powell

(Austin after his daddy and as a shout-out to all of his family that hails from Austin, TX). We ask, if you will, to bring him to regular remembrance by name before the LORD.  This baby serves as a reminder to us of His steadfast love that will–because we’ve lived it–remain with us regardless of what happens on the day of his birth. Truly, GREAT is the faithfulness that God has shown to us–in our brightest joy and even in our darkest despair.  But He has been our portion, and therefore we will hope in Him.

Rejoice in the Lord. ALWAYS.

My hands were clenched tightly to the pew in front of me.  The passage of Scripture for the morning’s chosen theme appeared on the screen, and before the reader had uttered even one syllable, I knew that this service would prove to be more difficult a struggle than a typical Sunday worship service, if that was even possible.  Just fight it, Jamie. Fight it! I urged. I coaxed. I demanded.  Not to fight the tears; I’d given up on that futile battle weeks before.  No, instead I was desperately trying to fight the sobbing, fight the involuntary hiccup-swallow that I had developed when my heart would catch hard–often unexpectedly–in my throat.  I knew this passage too well. The words resounded through the auditorium, and their echoes clanged heavily in the black darkness of my mind. Jesus never intended them to be harsh or hurtful, but hearing them spoken aloud crushed my heart.  

16 “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” 17 So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” 18 So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” 19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:16-24, ESV)

I was thankful when the reader concluded and the congregation began to sing, although I didn’t join with them.  I couldn’t even silently mouth the words in order to present a halfway believable charade because I was still fighting so hard.  I knew that if I moved my mouth even a hair’s breadth, I would succumb. One false move, and I would literally be a puddle on the floor, right on the front row for all eyes to see.

The theme of the service?  JOY.  Only months removed from our Thea’s loss, a service on joy.  Joy was the last thing on my mind, on my tongue, or in my heart.  The lesson was the second in a sermon series entitled In Step with the Spirit, in which our preacher explored the fruit of the Spirit from a powerfully fresh perspective each week.  This lesson on joy, I felt (as I did with all of them in the series), was intended just for me. I just wished that it hadn’t been such a public experience.  In solitude, where I could weep if I needed to, would have been preferable.

I had many questions with which to wrestle over the next several days.  If a woman’s sorrow and anguish are forgotten, her joy restored, with the arrival of new life, what happens to the woman who labors in sorrow and anguish only to leave the hospital with arms empty, heart shattered?  What restores her joy? WHAT?!  Could I ever hope to feel joyful again?  My only consolation was the truth that these were the words of Jesus Himself.  He knew that a woman is plagued with sorrow when her time comes, and He prescribed the cure for that sorrow.  Surely He also then understood the dreadful, lingering sorrow when the prescription was withheld. Jesus knew.  He understood.  Even if no one else on this earth did, HE did.  And that was enough.  Maybe He didn’t expect me to be joyful in this moment; He understood and accepted my sorrow.

Even a year later, I still struggled with joy.  I had found contentment.  I had found peace.  I had been astounded time and time again by God’s faithfulness to our little family, and my own faith was exploding.  But no one that knows me would have described my life as being joyful. Often I found myself trudging through the valley (at least it wasn’t the treacherous canyon that it had been for so long!), but most days I aimlessly walked the endless plains. Occasionally there would be a tiny ripple of a hill to cross my path.  I smiled and I laughed, but I never stood atop a majestic mountain, in awe of the splendor before me. Along that journey, those passages that I wrestled with most were sprinkled gently into my life here and there in the desert places–maybe not by coincidence. Sometimes they were sprinkled, and sometimes they were poured, like the passage in John 16.

That same summer, there was a downpour.  I was teaching the teen girls at Backwoods Christian Camp.  The opportunity to teach those girls–even though it still scares me to death–has been a little hill in my summers for about 16 years now.  Imagine my dismay, though, when I looked over the Bible material for the week and saw that it was entitled “Think on These Things” and covered Philippians 4:4-8.  Wouldn’t. You. Know. that the lessons I was responsible for teaching were “Rejoice in the Lord Always” and “Do Not Be Anxious for Anything”. (If you know me, you’re giggling with the irony.)

Have you ever taught a Bible class?  If you haven’t, I would encourage you to do so.  If you have, then you already know that the student that gains the most from the lesson is not the one sitting in front of you but the one presenting the material.  I don’t remember much about the actual delivery of those lessons; I’m pretty sure that I recklessly stumbled my way through from beginning to end. I felt a little guilty about that, but I don’t know that they were intended for those girls.  I think that instead they might have been intended for me.  And the lessons that I gained were immeasurable on my journey toward joy.

In preparation for the first lesson, I read Philippians 4:4 over and over and over again.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.”  I asked myself a million times, “How can you, of all people, teach anyone to rejoice, much less to rejoice always and in all things?”  I prayed.  I cried. I studied. I stared at that word rejoice.  I have always loved words.  I am a Word Nerd. I love the images that sounds and syllables conjure in a mind; I love the ability to communicate through a spoken word; and I love the study of its history through etymology.  Eli and I had been studying Latin stems in his language arts program. Although often described as a “dead language”, Latin lives and thrives in the many languages that it influenced, English being one of them.  

As I looked long at that word “rejoice”, for the first time I began to see in it one of the Latin stems that Eli learned early in the year, the stem re-.  It permeates our language–repeat, redo, rewrite…restore, redeem.  We use it so often that we all understand what it means, often without even thinking of its meaning: again, anew, once more.  The other building block in the word “rejoice” is joir, from Old French, meaning “experience joy”.  If I took the two building blocks re- and joir and joined them together, my new word would literally mean to experience joy…again, to experience joy…anew, to experience joy…once more.  Suddenly Philippians 4:4 adopted a brand new meaning.

What if…Paul’s instructions don’t imply that we should always be joyful in every moment and every situation because we are in the Lord?  (Have you ever gotten that impression?  That even in the midst of utter grief and devastation, we should still be able to dig deep and rejoice (i.e., be joyful) because of Christ?  And when you’re digging and you just can’t seem to dig deep enough, you feel guilty and wonder what’s wrong with my faith?)  What if…the word “rejoice”–to experience joy again–instead acknowledges that there will be times in our lives in which we don’t experience joy, and that’s OK?  In order for a person to be glad again, it is implied that there is a period in which he or she is not glad.  What if…the message is not that we are to be always joyful, but that there will be periods in our lives when we are thirsty and water is scarce; when we are wandering lost and in darkness, and we can’t seem to find even a glimmer of light; when joy is the last thing on our minds, on our tongues, or in our hearts…but during those times we can maintain hope that God is faithful, and we will, at some point, rejoice?  We will experience joy once more.

However, this is only part of the equation.  Rejoice, YES! Cling to the hope that one day, somehow, you will experience joy again  But Paul’s admonition is to rejoice (be glad again)…in the Lord.  What if…his point isn’t that we should always be glad in some form or fashion because we are in Christ, but instead that we will experience joy again when we allow HIM to restore it in us?  Oh, how often have I tried to infuse joy into my own life, by my own hand?!  Weary of the desert, the wandering, the darkness, I have reached in vain toward things that I thought might restore my joy.  It was only when I relinquished them all into God’s hands and asked Him to write our story that He took the pen and began a story that I could never even begin to imagine.  What if…in our wilderness of wandering, when we are parched and lonely, we ask Him to restore?  We cling in faith to hope, and we wait.  The waiting is admittedly one of the hardest parts.  We are impatient; the journey is exhausting; the thirst is excruciating; the darkness is terrifying.  We want to be anywhere but in that wilderness.  But what if His best work is done in that wilderness of wandering and waiting?   What if He’s asking us to stay just a little longer until all things are ready?  What if He’s working all along to mold us into this new creation whose joy can be FULL in Him?  What if we still our busy hands and let Him do His work?  What would our joy–His joy–look like in our lives?

Admittedly, I am no theologian.  I am a student of English, not Greek.  A Bible scholar, or a devoted student of Greek. might rip this concept apart, theologically speaking, in a matter of seconds.  It might be the farthest thing from Paul’s intended message in Philippians 4. That’s why I included so many “what if”s. 🙂  However, I don’t think that anyone would argue against David’s anguish in Psalm 13 when he cries out to God, “How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”  I don’t imagine his heart was joy-filled as he penned these words.  But only 3 short verses later, he says, “But [I wonder if this is one of those hard “nevertheless”’s] I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”  Notice that David doesn’t say that his heart rejoices, but that it shall rejoice, in the future tense.  Doesn’t it just make sense that he’s saying, “I’m not joyful in this moment, but I know that my heart will experience joy again?”  I’m hurting, and I feel forgotten and alone.  But deep down, I know that You are faithful and loving, and I’m clinging to that.  I know that you will lead me to green pastures; You will allow me to experience joy anew along this path that You have planned for my feet.  Give me patience in the waiting and the wandering, and help me to remember that there is purpose. If you are questioning with David, “How long, O LORD?” let me encourage you to cling to hope, trust His time and His plan, and

Rejoice in the Lord.  ALWAYS!

20 weeks +6: This Time I Will Praise the LORD

I’m preparing for another day of worship to my faithful Father.  But this Sunday is not just any Sunday. On this Sunday, I am 20 weeks and 6 days… filled with LIFE.  I’ve experienced some pretty remarkable days that rank pretty high on my list of favorites–a beautiful wedding day, the births of Eli and Eden.  But I don’t know that I have ever been more thankful for any other day in my life than I am of this day. On this day, I have carried this baby just one more day.  This time, I will praise the LORD.

We are currently on the hunt for another name.  I had the perfect name for a baby girl.  It was one that would have told our entire story with this baby, all within her name.  I chose it immediately, the same day that we learned of the pregnancy. But would you believe that this baby is a boy?  (Let the tradition continue!)  I had planned to have a name chosen by the time we learned gender so that we could ask our sweet friends to lift this sweet babe by name.  Unfortunately, that mystery name is still floating around out there in the vast unknown.

We have been keeping our hearts open to anything that we might encounter in the search process, though!  Since all of my other babies’ names were based in the Bible, that’s been my primary source. So stories of Biblical names have been of particular interest to me as I read and study this year.

A few months ago, I was reading the story of Jacob’s sons, paying close attention to their names and the meanings behind them.  As I read, I was touched by Leah in a way that I haven’t been before, and I could identify with her on a new level. The first three of her boys–Reuben, Simeon, and Levi–were named with her struggling marriage and her sorely neglected heart at the forefront of her mind.  “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (Gen. 29:32).  “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (Gen. 29:33).  “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen. 29:34).  Poor Leah!  Like every woman, she only wanted to be loved.  Her life must have been consumed with disappointment.  If it could creep into even the days beautified with the births of her babies, then it surely must have clung closely throughout every day.  What astounded me, though, as I read was the change as she bestowed her fourth son with the name Judah.  The footnote in the ESV says that Judah sounds like the Hebrew word for “praise”. With his birth she said simply, “This time I will praise the LORD.”  Do you see the shift in her focus?  From herself and her struggles, her disappointments, her longing…to her LORD and the good that He had done in her life.

Her words struck a hard chord of accusation in my heart.  This time I will praise the LORD.  Our pregnancy with Thea caught us completely by surprise.  We didn’t tell a soul for several weeks–not even the kids or our parents–because I needed to be able to share the news without grieving tears.  Imagine! Grieving over new life!  There certainly was little room for praise on my lips.  I said often, “I know this must be God’s will, and that He knows what’s best for our family.  And I know that once this baby comes, these thoughts will be long forgotten, and I will love him or her until my heart feels like it’s going to burst, but…”  So many people could testify to hearing these exact words from my mouth!  These are not words of which I am proud.  As a matter of fact, these words and these feelings I regret more than most any others in my life.  But they are truth.

After months of struggle, I finally mustered some excitement about the pregnancy.  I think it was something about the Christmas season, seeing the excitement in the eyes of the kids as they planned for their little sister.  And then, just weeks later at 20 weeks, 5 days, I lost all of it–her life, her future, and every small ounce of excitement–all gone within moments.  I was left with the numbing question, “This is what is best for our family?  We were content with our lives, with our family, and now I’m left with this insatiable, aching emptiness.  This is best?!”  Needless to say, it took several more months before I was able to say and mean that God had blessed me with Thea, that she was His gift, that perhaps He gave me an emptiness in order that I could learn to be filled only by Him.  The day finally did come, but oh, it was such a long and painful journey!

Coincidentally, it was a long and painful journey that I remember every part of–every twist in the path, every rock that caused me to stumble, every rainbow that crossed the sky, and every ray of sun bursting through the fog.  It’s strange because I remember so little of life during that time, but every step of that journey has been etched into my soul.  I look back on it all and say [Even in] this time I will praise the LORD.

Today, with 20 weeks and SIX days of life inside of me, I am ever so thankful.  I am thankful that He chose me, that He chose our family for this path.  I am thankful for this one more day, and I am thankful for every day.  And every day I will say, regardless of where this journey leads, This time I will praise the LORD.”

A New Song

You have turned my mourning into dancing:

You have loosed my sackcloth

And clothed me with gladness,

That my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.

Psalm 30:11-12a

A few weeks ago, a sweet friend of mine and fellow loss mom posed an intriguing question on social media:  “How do you know if something is coincidence or if it’s God?”  This is a question with which I’ve wrestled myself, especially over the last two years.  I didn’t comment.  It’s a difficult question to answer.  When your world has always been painted from top to bottom with black and white, it’s sometimes difficult to detect the vibrance of the Master Painter’s hand.  One might think the contrast would be obvious.  But it’s not always.  When you’re not looking for color, for beauty, are you less likely to see it?

Some would argue that since we can never know with certainty when something is without-a-doubt God, then we shouldn’t ever attribute anything to Him.  What if we are wrong in our assumption, and we attribute something to God that He had no hand in?  While I can follow this line of argument, still I question.  What would be the greater mistake?  To attribute something to God, even if He was not actively a part of it, and in the process direct others’ attention to Him and bring glory to His name?  Or to fail to give Him credit for something that He has done–no honor, no glory?

Then there are those beautiful, precious gifts that seem to be so unmistakably God.  Another very dear friend of mine braved a response to the original post that began, “Assume it’s God.  Thank Him and handle the situation as you think He would want.”  In those most precious moments–those gifts of His love–how would He want me to handle the situation?  In the question, I happened upon Psalm 30:11-12.  If He turns my mourning into dancing, removes the heavy cloak of grief that I’ve worn for so long and replaces it with a flowing gown of joy, then He surely has done so for a reason–that my glory may sing His praise and not. be. silent.

I have thought long and hard about this story and how to tell it.  What should be my approach?  How do I introduce it?  What details do I include?  I think I’m overthinking.  What else is new?  The analysis has kept me silent, but it is time to sing.  Therefore, I have decided just to tell the story.  It doesn’t have to be fancy; God’s handiwork is frilly enough in this one.  I will let it speak.

December has become a difficult month for me.  I’ve always loved the magic of the Christmas season, but the busy-ness overwhelms me.  Since Christmas of 2015, grief has added a numbness that made the busy-ness that much more difficult.  Many times over the last two years, I have wished that I could just fast-forward through it.  However, with children and birthdays (We have a two-week Powell party at our house!), fast-forwarding is not an option.  And truthfully, I wouldn’t want to fast forward through a solitary minute with my babies.  Sometimes the minutes are just hard.

This past December was no exception.  I was feeling distant, numb, disconnected.  But early in the month, I felt a great reassurance of God’s presence and His light.  Here’s a post from December 3, in case you missed it on the first go-round:


On the way to worship this morning we drove through some pretty thick fog. We passed through downtown Birmingham, emergency lights flashing because we couldn’t see even one car link in front of us or behind us. My mind began swirling. Sometimes I still feel like I’m LIVING in that fog–fog so dense that I can’t see what’s behind me (because much of the last two years has literally been wiped from my memory with only faint traces here and there), and I have no idea what’s ahead. Often I feel guilty about it. I feel like I shouldn’t be here anymore, and yet I am. The realization that the fog could potentially exist for the rest of my earthly life is overwhelming. All of these things are rolling over and over in my mind when there is a sudden and very abrupt break. It’s not a gradual lifting of the fog; it’s just GONE. And in its place…a BRILLIANT, almost cloudless blue sky, the sun so bright, we had to shield our eyes. To go from such dense, grey fog to dazzling light in a matter of seconds was breathtaking.

But the most amazing part… While I was lost in the fog of my mind, playing just under the radar of my consciousness, “God, come quickly! Only You can save me! Will You lead me where the light is?” And at THAT MOMENT, there was the light, so bright that I couldn’t bear to look TOWARD it, much less INTO it. And you know one of the things I was praying for specifically last week? Sunshine! I wasn’t thinking so much about literal sunshine as much as SONshine and the warmth of God’s love, but He gave me BOTH.

I have faith that God WILL somehow, in some way, at some point (whether now or in eternity) lead me where the light is. I pray that He does it quickly in the here and now, but if not that He will grant me contentment and clarity. In the meantime, in the waiting, I trust that He is doing His best work, molding me and preparing me for whatever He will reveal when the fog lifts. So I will pray, and I will wait actively, and I will confess my shortcomings, and I will pray more (Chuck Webster as always, thank you for such a great lesson! The timing was amazing!). And I know that it will be exceedingly abundantly above anything I could ever imagine.


It was almost as if God was beckoning to us, asking us to follow His lead out of the fog and into His light.  

It consumed me throughout week.  I decided to add to my daily prayer list the following week: “Take the evil and suffering in our lives and use it for good.”  It dawned on me, much to my shame, that in all the prayers I had audibly sobbed or the ones that I mouthed through silent tears into the darkness, I had never asked God to take the pain and work it into a beautiful masterpiece.  I had just assumed that He would, like the selfish teenager who just expects a car for her sweet sixteen. After all, He is in the redeeming business.   I had prayed specifically about the ways in which I thought it best for Him to do that.  I had prayed about an opportunity to volunteer at a Women’s Clinic, hoping that my story might save the lives of babies like my girl and give purpose to her loss.  I had prayed about adoption.  We had met with two separate agencies, and I had literature from five, but it just felt impossible.  The doors weren’t budging.  Anywhere.  So, as I prayed, I imagined God opening one of these doors for us to step through.  Also, in my Bible study that week, I read in I Peter 5:10-11, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”  I prayed those words specifically over our family.  Since we had suffered, could He, would He now restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us?

The month continued.  We sang of joy to the world, peace on Earth, but they were words without meaning.  Darrell and I both had a hard time “getting into the spirit”.  We decorated and pushed ourselves to fulfill family traditions and obligations anyway, but the actions were very robotic.  I’ve always been a good gift-giver, especially for my own children.  I know them and know what things will bring that extra sparkle to their eyes.  But this Christmas, I had to ask them to make lists.  I felt like a failure.  I told Darrell that I was tired of having “things” just for the sake of having a present under the tree at Christmas.  Our move over the summer had convinced me that we had way too much.  I didn’t want “things” for Christmas.  I asked for heart gifts–rings with my babies’ names engraved on them, a new journaling Bible, and a 2018 planner.  That was all.    Little did I know that God had His own gift prepared for us that would shock my heart into overdrive.  On Christmas morning, our entire family received the most special gift we have ever received–a tiny little plus sign the size of a fingertip and the promise of hope.

Check out the kids’ reaction to the news :’)

Three weeks after God had literally led us out of the fog and into the light; three weeks after I had open-endedly prayed for Him to turn our suffering into good in whatever way He saw fit; three weeks after I had asked Him specifically to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish our family…Three weeks later, we learned that I was five weeks pregnant.  PREGNANT!!!  FIVE WEEKS!!!  If you’re not a woman, or one that has been overly concerned with her cycle, you might not know that the first two weeks of pregnancy are basically freebies.  You’re not “technically” pregnant until the third(ish) week, give or take…which would mark the date of conception sometime during THAT week!

Of all the things I had asked of God, I had not once dared even to whisper for a baby.  There was nothing–nothing–that I wanted more.  However, after Thea’s loss, we learned that I was born with a bicornuate, septate uterus.  Quite frankly, my doctor was shocked that I had Eli and Eden–period–much less without complications.  The probability of another baby like Thea was rather high, and rather terrifying.  After much prayer, study, deliberation, anguish, and more prayer, we decided not to decide.  We made a prayerful choice to ask for what was best over what we wanted.  I knew that sometimes God gives us what we want, even when it’s not what’s best…cue the nation of Israel and her kings.  We didn’t want a baby, no matter what it took; we wanted our King.  What if another pregnancy would end like Thea’s and God knew that it would be too much for our family?  What if something happened to me, and my children had to grow up without their Mama?  Giving that decision to God was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.  Though it crushed my heart, my fear wanted to blow the whistle and call “The End”.  But we decided to choose faith instead; we trusted that He knew what was best and would act accordingly.

So for two years, we prayed that He would make the decision that was best for our family.  And for two years, that answer was “no”.  We watched as other loss friends had empty arms filled with new love, and we listened as they spoke of incomparable healing.  We even heard our doctor speak the word “infertility” into our hearts only four short months ago.  But what science quickly dismissed as infertility, we claimed as Providence.  He was obviously at work in our lives, even if His work was in preventing a pregnancy.  How could we be disappointed with His hand directly involved in our lives?  Even though the “no” was disappointing, it was exhilarating to know that He was with us in this.

I know there will be skeptics who question our decision.  Isn’t it selfish to risk the life of a baby knowing that our choice could be the cause of his/her demise?  I would be lying if I said that those questions hadn’t clouded my mind as well.  But I realize that this decision was not ours.  For two years, God prevented it.  He certainly could have prevented it for the remainder of our child-bearing years.  But this one time, He said “yes” to something beautiful in our lives.  Given our prayers and the timing, I could never deny that this is His gift–His unbelievably joyous gift.

Regardless of how this story ends, I have faith that it will be beautiful.  That is specifically what I asked, and this is how He answered.  I am not naive enough to believe that the only way in which that can be accomplished is through a successful pregnancy with a healthy baby and mom.  I’ve thought much and often of the story of Joseph.  He endured much evil in the process of God’s beautiful rewrite of his narrative.  His ways are mysterious, but He is faithful and steadfast through them all.  Whether we introduce you to a healthy baby in August or an angel sometime before that, this story is already beautiful because it is hand-picked for our family from GOD!

2016 was hands down the hardest year of my life.  Pregnancy trouble began on January 7.  Thea was born at 21 weeks on January 18.  I don’t have many other specific memories of that year.  Maybe in a God-given blessing, it has been almost entirely wiped from my memory.  Last week, our preacher spoke about a two-letter Hebrew word found in Psalm 62 that is often translated in different ways.  In this psalm alone, it is translated in the ESV as “alone” (vv. 1, 2, 5, 8), “only” (vv. 4, 6), and “but” (v. 9).  In Hebrew, it precedes a statement that–based on a previous experience–might not come naturally or easily.  It is an implied nevertheless.  [I have endured this or that great hardship.]  Nevertheless, my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.  Nevertheless, He is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.  Listening to the lesson, I thought, “That was my 2016.”  I spent the year convincing my heart to cling to these truths that my head was urging me to accept.  God is my rock, my salvation, my fortress.  He is. He is. He is!  If I said it enough times, maybe it would stick.

It took almost a full year of convincing, but by the beginning of 2017, my heart had accepted, and I was ready to grow.  I decided to spend that yearfocused on faith in my personal Bible study –what is it?  Who is this God that I’ve placed so much faith in?  How does He work?  Does He work?

So here’s a basic outline of my life over the past two years:

2016: Clinging to Faith

2017:  Growing in Faith

Looks like 2018 will be Living by Faith.

“For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.  Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5).  I don’t know how many times I’ve read this verse over the past two years and wondered how long I would have to wait before my morning would begin to dawn.  Sometimes the night is long.  And it feels eternal.  But I’m just beginning to see the breaking of the sun, and it’s so beautiful!  (Our hearts are with those who are still “in the waiting”.)  Indeed, He has turned our mourning into dancing.  He has reclothed our grieving hearts with gladness.  And we will tell anyone willing to listen that He is faithful.  We cannot be silent.

Greatly Loved

A name is important to one’s identity. And that’s why, in the story of our fathers and mothers, God keeps changing people’s names. After all, the people of God never considered themselves “sons of Terah” or even “sons of Abram.”  They were sons of Abraham, a name that means “the father of a multitude of nations”(Gen. 17: 5). That name seemed nonsensical at the time for this childless, homeless man. It seemed almost a mockery to call his barren old wife a “princess,” as the name “Sarah” means (Gen. 17: 15). The children of Israel, furthermore, were children of Israel. That identity reflects another name change, when the one whose name meant “deceiver,” Jacob, wrestled with God on the riverbank. God named him “Israel” because he had struggled with God and men and won (Gen. 32: 28). It sure didn’t seem as though Israel had won—on the run from his angry brother, limping away from his encounter with God. But God names things as though they are and then makes them that way (Rom. 4: 17).

Russell Moore, Adopted for Life

All of us, at some point, experience those times when it feels as if we’ve been tossed inside the trash compactor of life.  You’re already caught up in the middle of a murky mess when suddenly the walls begin to close in on you.  They grind, stone on stone, as they creep ever closer, and the feeling of panic begins to wring the very life from your heart.  Before you have a chance to think, much less respond, your world goes dark.  You can’t breathe.  Your muffled cries for help go unheard and unanswered.  Then you wake to find that what seemed like a vicious nightmare is your reality.  And you wonder, “Where were You, God?  I called for Your help, and You weren’t there!”  Often when we reflect on our life’s most turbulent trials, we are willing to acknowledge God’s involvement in the healing process.  We speak of His comfort, the peace that passes understanding.  However, finding evidence of His hand when the storm is raging on every side is sometimes a more difficult task.

When the walls crept in on me and finally crashed down around me as my tiny baby died in my arms, I felt very much alone.  I knew that God would take care of me.  I knew that He wouldn’t leave me alone.  What I didn’t know and couldn’t see at the time was that He had been taking care of me in ever so many ways through the smallest details leading up to and preparing me for those moments that He knew were coming.  And in the midst of my storm, He gave me Theadora.

Remember, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo & Juliet, II, ii, 1-2)?  While you might share Juliet’s nonchalance with names, my overly analytical mind would never allow it.  I have always taken the responsibility of bestowing a name very seriously.  You see how I worded that?  You don’t just name someone or something.  In my mind, you bestow a name because a  name is a gift–the only gift, in fact, that a recipient will carry with him for the entirety of his life.  I have always named my pets after having been given the opportunity to know them, taking into careful consideration their physical traits, personalities, anything that might lead me to the “perfect” name.  And naming my children?  What a task!

When I was expecting our first baby, I had chosen several names for girls but none for boys.  Boys’ names were complicated.  I would need a name that was cute enough for a baby boy but burly enough for a manly man.  Finally, I decided that the most appropriate test would be the way that it sounded in the frustrated voice of a parent, in that strung-together fashion of a reprimand. (You know the one–that one that really opens your eyes to the fact that you’re really in for it, whatever “it” is–when you get all three names.)  If the name passed that test, it might be a keeper. Finally, we were fairly certain that Eli Gaston (my maiden name) was our winner.  However, we told no one but my doctor because I needed to see him before I made it permanent.  I just knew that if I announced it, well-meaning friends would purchase sweet little monogrammed gifts.  But what if I changed my mind?!  (GASP!) I remember the doctor asked when she first held Eli, brand new to the outside world, for me to see, “Well, does he look like an Eli?”  I studied his head full of hair and sarcastically quipped that he actually looked more like a Samson, but I figured Eli would do just fine.

Two and a half years later, I was expecting, and the daunting task of choosing a name was again looming on my horizon.  We chose a boy name fairly quickly.  My instincts, however, aren’t always spot-on;  I was expecting a girl.  Since we gave Eli a Bible name/Family name, I wanted to do the same for this baby girl.  That meant that all of our previous girl names were out.  Back to the drawing board.  Generally speaking, girl names are easier, but not so much girl Bible names. I didn’t want to go with one of the more common names like Mary or Sarah.  I wanted something unique.  So, I began to search place names.  And soon, there it was.  Beautiful.  Paradise.  Eden.  Eden’s middle name was our struggle.  We discussed several options.  However, when I learned that Darrell’s great-grandmother was named Emily Minniebelle, I was sold.  I’ve always loved the name Amelia; we could name her Eden Emilia–poetic, musical even.  Perfect.  However, as we were waiting for the doctor to come into the labor and delivery room, (literally) minutes from her arrival, Darrell looked at me and said casually, “So we are naming her Eden Clare, right?”  Eden Clare?!  I thought we were naming her Eden Emilia!  But just a few months earlier, Darrell had informed his grandmother prior to her hip replacement surgery that we had decided to name our baby girl after her.  How does a person argue with that?  Admittedly, I still wrestled with it for a couple of days.  We didn’t complete the paperwork for her birth certificate until the day we were to be discharged from the hospital.  Finally, when I did, I reluctantly resigned the music in my heart and signed off on “Eden Clare”.  (Looking back, though, I’m so thankful that we chose this name.  It gave Mawmaw Rice such joy, and Clare really suits her spunky, fun-loving personality.)

Unexpected pregnancy number three caught me off guard in every aspect, including the naming department.  Again, we chose a boy name fairly quickly–Isaac (which means laughter, because we knew that one day, despite what seemed to be terrible timing, we would laugh about the arrival of this blessing) Austin (for his Daddy).  I even had a back-up boy’s name just in case he didn’t look like an Isaac Austin!  Of course, that meant our “he” was a “she”.  My slightly off-kilter instincts are actually non-existent.  Immediately I began delving into baby girl names.  This time, I began with Biblical place names to carry on the trend that we set with Eden.  I really loved the name Cana, but we had so many children in our congregation with hard C names–2 Kendyl’s, Corey James, Kennedy, Cameron, Chloe, Keelie, Kyle, 2 Carson’s, Kaitlin, 2 Caleb’s, 2 Caroline’s, Corrine, Carter, Kathryn; I just couldn’t add another one to that mix.  Back to work!

The next night, as Darrell was getting the kids in bed, I came across the name Arimathea.  I reflected for a moment on the beautiful story of the Joseph who made that town famous, the Joseph who paid our Lord such a great honor by preparing His body for burial and placing Him within his own tomb.  That story has always warmed my heart.  But, the name itself is also beautiful; it, too,  has a musical quality.  Too bad it was such a long name.  Then I had an epiphany.  Instead of Arimathea, we could shorten it and name her Thea!  I was so excited that I was almost giddy (probably for the first time since we had learned of the pregnancy).  I loved it, and I just knew that Darrell would love it, too!  I couldn’t wait for him to come back into our room so that I could present it to him for consideration–beautifully adorned on a fluffy, velvet pillow.

I heard Darrell’s footsteps in the hall and jumped out of bed for a quick bathroom trip before the grand presentation.  However, when I got into the bathroom, the excitement that had taken months to claw its way to the surface sank hard and fast with the appearance of the color red.  In that instant, I quickly buried the name within myself.  After all, if this pregnancy was in jeopardy, naming her would only make her more real and thus harder to relinquish.

Of course, we called the doctor immediately, and we went into the office first thing the next morning, as instructed.  Everything appeared to be fine, she said.  Hopefully I had just angered my anterior placenta when I leaned over the side of the bed while lying on my stomach.  So, we would keep an eye on things, and resume life as usual.  That afternoon, we ventured toward Lineville for Darrell’s family Christmas, and feeling a little more emboldened, I ventured out with the name.  I had been right; he did love it.  Pleased and proud, as we had never reached a conclusion on a baby name so quickly, we decided on Thea Brintsey (for Pawpaw Rice, John Brinton).  Of course, we would wait to make it official so as to be sure she looked like a Thea, but this name just felt right.

A few days passed, and the bleeding continued.  I returned to the doctor (multiple times, actually).  I was presenting some disturbing symptoms, but she couldn’t determine what the cause might be.  On the way home from one of the visits, I thought about one of the students in the class that I was teaching that year.  Her name was Teddy Grace.  When I learned her name, I asked her to tell me the story.  After all, with a name like Teddy Grace, there must be an accompanying story.  And there was.  She had been adopted as a baby.  Her mother named her Theodora Grace, which literally means gift of God’s grace.  I looked at Darrell as we drove that day and asked, “If she happens to make it, what would you think about naming her Theadora instead of Thea?  It means gift of God, and she will certainly be a gift if she’s able to pull through this.  We could even spell it with an A instead of an O and still call her Thea.”  (Here, I must insert that I have always been opposed to the idea of naming my children one thing only to call them something else, so this concept was shocking, most especially to me.)  And so we agreed–Theadora Brintsey Powell.

Of course, if you know our story, then you know its tragic end.  Our beautiful baby girl was born only days later.  She was alive, perfect.  At such a young gestational age, however, she didn’t really even stand a chance at life.  Her soul slipped away in just a brief few moments as I cradled her in my arms.

In the hospital, they asked us her name.  “We hadn’t decided,” I heard myself reply.  I loved this name.  What if I had another baby girl and wanted to name her Thea?  Besides, God had denied me this gift. Could I honestly call this nightmare a gift of God?  And what if He were to grant me another? Would my heart even allow me to name this baby?  The fear monster was still lurking in the shadows of my mind.  “Name her, and it will only hurt more!” he sneered.  

Hospital stays are a whirlwind of pokes, prods and paperwork.  Within minutes of arrival, I was flooded with all three.  Paperwork–for both a birth and death certificate.  It was surreal.  Of course, the first boxes were for her name.  I looked at Darrell, questions spilling out with the tears.  “What do you want to do?  Do we want to keep her name or save it?  We were naming her after your Pawpaw.  Would you rather not, in case we have another baby later?”  And then it hit me.  What was I thinking?!  We would never be able to give that beautiful name to another child.  If we did, it would serve as a constant reminder of the child that we lost, whose identity we had given away so flippantly to another, almost as if the first had never existed.  In that moment, my thoughts fluttered through the many things that I would never be able to give to my baby girl–not one ounce of Mommy’s milk, not one kissed ouchie, not even one all-night vigil as we both fought through with tears.  But there was one thing that I could give to her–a beautiful name, befitting of an angel.

I am reminded of a story from the book of Daniel that touched my heart as I read it months ago.  At the time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made the story so moving.  Today, as I reflect, I think I understand.  At the beginning of chapter 10, the reader finds Daniel mourning over his people, as he has been for three weeks.  At this point he sees a vision of a man unlike any other.  The man touches him, and Daniel begins trembling on his hands and knees.  Then he addresses Daniel directly as “man greatly loved”, a term of endearment that he uses twice in this chapter.  He assures Daniel that each and every word that he spoke in prayer was heard; as a matter of fact, this “man” was sent in response to Daniel’s prayer.  He then goes on to tell Daniel in the following chapters about the future that lies ahead for the nation of Israel–one that would be filled with tribulation but ultimately would end in victory.  It reads almost as if God knew that Daniel’s prayers would not be answered as Daniel would have liked, so He, as his loving Father, wanted Daniel to know that that didn’t mean that He hadn’t heard or that He didn’t care.  So, He sent Daniel this vision as a reminder that he was lovedgreatly loved–and his prayers were valued, even if their answer would be a resounding “no”.

In those days and weeks when her future was yet uncertain, I begged God to protect my baby girl.  I happened to be reading in the book of Job at the peak of our struggle.  I remember stumbling on Job 38:8, “Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?” I imagined my womb being shut up with doors, as was the sea, and I begged God repeatedly throughout every day to close the door of my womb.  Please, Father!  Just close the doors!  Keep her safe!  Please!  I know that You can!  And yet…He didn’t.  Instead, He prepared me for what was to come.  It was as if He said, “The answer to this prayer is going to have to be ‘no’, Jamie.  But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t heard your prayers, that I don’t love you, or that I’m not with you through this.  And to prove it to you, I’m giving you this gift.”  And He gave me the most precious gift, the name Theadora.  God names things as though they are and then makes them that way.

A skeptic might make a good argument for coincidence; however, I know myself.  I know what would have happened if I hadn’t found her name literally moments before the trouble presented itself.  I would have seen the signs of danger, buried my head in the sand, and done whatever I had to do to “protect” my heart and the hearts of my family.  My beautiful baby girl would never have received that gift of a name from me.  But God knew that I would need that in the days, weeks, and months that would follow.  It is difficult to grieve the loss of someone whom you never knew at all.  I never knew the sparkle in her eyes, the melody of her giggles ringing through our halls, or even what precious things, unique to her, would incite that laughter.  At the same time, I knew her as intimately as any mother knows the child that is so much a part of herself.  I can’t imagine how much more difficult this grief would be if it remained nameless.  In truth, her name was not my gift to her; it was God’s gift to me.

I will be forever thankful for my Theadora, my gift of God, my proof that I–as small and insignificant as I might be in the scheme of time–even I am greatly loved.

She Filled a Whole Shelf

We received a Willow Tree piece as a gift at a wedding shower–the image of a man and woman in a wistful embrace.  I remember thinking, “Well, that’s certainly interesting.  But what will I do with it?”  (I’ve always been an overly practical person.)   Eventually, I learned that the piece was part of an entire collection, and I thought that one day it might be fun to expand my collection to commemorate the different stages of our life together.  That one piece stood alone for six years.  When I was expecting Eli, I added a second piece–a mother with child.  After he was born, a third, called “New Life” with a mother and father, sitting together, enamored with this new life placed within their hands.  As my collection grew, I became more and more thankful that my sentimentality would never allow me to toss aside a gift from the heart of another.  I knew that one day I would look back on them all and reminisce over the joys in the various stages of our life as a family.

Eli was fascinated with them from the beginning.  He would play with them when I got them down each week to dust.  (Yes, at one point in my life, my house was spotless!)  I don’t even remember how many I’ve replaced over the years.  I remember watching with a mixture of horror and amusement as the head of that new father rattled over our hardwood floor.  I did my best to mend him, but glue just didn’t hold long.

One night, as he admired them, Eli’s chubby two-year-old finger pointed to the New Life piece.  “Dat’s me in yours and Daddy’s arms.”  Then he looked at the original with the man and woman wistfully (and oh so peacefully!) embracing and said, “Dat’s before I was here.”  He was quiet for a minute.  Through his always deep brown eyes I could see the workings of his child-philosopher mind.  He began shaking his head slowly and then added, “Poor Mommy and Daddy.”  And he meant it! He knew our lives could never have been as blissfully radiant before his arrival.

Our family continued to grow, as did our collection.   I added several pieces as we welcomed Eden to the family.  Another piece joined our collection when Eli went to school.  For each child, I had a pregnancy piece, a piece to commemorate their infancy, one to represent their toddler years, and one when they graduated to “big kid” status.  Each child had a designated shelf that represented his or her life.  I hadn’t yet added a piece to commemorate my pregnancy with Thea before we lost her.  However, she does have one named “Angel’s Embrace” with a baby in the arms of a precious little angel.

One afternoon, we were dusting the pieces.  It was a much rarer occurrence at this stage in our lives than it had once been, so I guess Eli felt the need to take advantage of the opportunity.  He still loved them and bargained with Eden so that he could be in charge of dusting them instead of the pictures on the mantle.  I smiled as I watched the slightly clumsy seven-year-old hands fumble with the characters, submerging them into the same roles they’d always played in the theater of his imagination.  It brought me joy to see the three year old in his eyes again.  His demeanor changed, however, when he came to Thea’s.  I watched as he placed the angel so gingerly on Thea’s shelf, along with her keepsake box and a picture of her during one of her ultrasounds.  His somber eyes were fixed, his busy hands still at his sides.  Without turning he observed, “You know, even with such a short life, she filled a whole shelf.”

I swallowed hard and thought that no other words could better summarize our experience with her loss.  Here we stood before a beautiful antique corner shelf, lovingly restored by my father’s hand.  Each shelf represented the milestones in the lives of my children, with room to grow!  Thea’s little life was so very short, and yet her shelf was already full, as was her life. Not because of the milestones that she reached or the heights that she achieved, but because of the way that she filled every one of our hearts–individually and collectively–to bursting.  Thea’s life touched every member of our family.

At the same time, her loss ripped every one of us to shreds.  If I could choose only one thing to share with others in regard to the reality of pregnancy/infant loss it would be this: It touches everyone.  Its icy hand crushes the heart of the mother, yes, but then it moves on callously to claim its next victims.  Regardless of the stage in which the loss occurred, this baby was loved by a mother and a father.  While the mother might feel a different connection having carried the baby within and having experienced the physical changes that take place throughout a pregnancy, the father also grieves.  I have no idea how many well-meaning friends and family went to Darrell and asked him privately, “How is Jamie?”  I wonder how many of them ever thought to ask about him.  Men are strong.  They don’t often show the emotion that they are feeling.  I knew just how deep and prolonged Darrell’s grief had been when almost a year and a half removed, he had to fight for composure before an audience of 300+ people when he simply made mention of our loss. Most do not know that Darrell performed CPR on our tiniest little daughter while we awaited the arrival of the paramedics. For some reason that knowledge changes things in the minds of those who gauge his grief, although it shouldn’t.  Not even I knew until recently, though, the guilt and the questions that he has carried since.  “Did I do enough? Did I do too much? Am I the reason she is gone?” Bless him! Daddies grieve, too!

One of the hardest things that was said to me in the aftermath of Thea’s passing was in regard to Eli and Eden.  While several others hinted a little more tactfully, I will never forget the words, “They only have a hard time with this because you do.  They are only responding to you.”  And just like that, my children’s right to grieve the sister whom they loved, whom they were anxiously awaiting, whom they longed to hold, was stripped from them.  I will never forget the night we broke the news to them.  I sat, helplessly watching, while Eli so tenderly rocked the tiny crocheted wrap as if it it still held his baby sister snugly inside.  In his mind he was holding the baby he would never hold, tears pouring over his cheeks.  I listened, heartbroken, as Eden sang a lullaby to her baby sister before she fell asleep that night.  In her mind, she was singing to sleep the sister whom she would never comfort.  I hear their comments of Thea, loss, and Heaven–still, almost two years later–on an almost daily basis.  I field their questions, “Why didn’t we get to keep our baby?”  I overhear their discussions with anyone willing to listen about the sister they didn’t even get to see.  In preparation to move, I removed the scriptures that lined the walls of my closet where I had cried out to God, swallowed up in grief.  And in the process, I found a little picture placed not by my hand, but by the hand of a big sister who missed her little.  It was drawn in the fashion of preschool art.  It was a picture of what she imagines her sister would look like with the word THEA scrawled at the bottom.  I wonder if she, too, called out to God in that place in her own little way.  I know that they grieve without any prompting from me.  They have the right to grieve, and their grief deserves to be acknowledged.  It should never be brushed aside as if they are not old enough to understand it or capable of loving deeply enough to be touched by it.

Grieving is hard.  It’s ugly.  But, at times, in a strange upside-down sort of way, it is beautiful.  Watching my babies grieve has been gut wrenching.  Often just observing them squeezes the breath from my lungs. But, at the same time, I realize that they have gained an understanding of many deep things in life that is their own–not one that they have adopted simply because it is mine.  Because they know grief, they also know the comfort of the Father.  Because they know pain, they know the power of prayer.  Because they know loss, they know the joy of fulfillment.  In ways that I can’t fathom in lives so young.

One day, Eli prayed, “Dear God, thank you for Life. Thank you for all lives everywhere. Thank You for the lives that last a long, long time. And thank You for the ones that don’t even last a day. Even those lives are important because of what they mean to the people who are still alive.”  He gets it.  We all do.  And we all honor the girl who will forever fill a whole shelf in our home, but most importantly, in our hearts.



Full Fillment

Emptiness.  I will never forget those long minutes during which I stared surreally at the ultrasound monitor before me. What had been full of life–a healthy, beating heart, ten long fingers just like her brother’s, and a button nose just like her sister’s–only two short days prior to those eternal minutes was now full of emptiness. Try as I might, I could not blink back the tears that fought against that ugly word.  Of the 17,253 words I might use to describe my experience with a late-term pregnancy loss, this one pretty well sums it up in three short syllables.

If you have ever given birth, even to a healthy, full-term baby, then you are already familiar with the strange physical sensation, that of going from completely full to suddenly empty in a matter of a few short minutes.  I still remember how very odd it felt to sleep on my stomach again for the first time after Eli was born.  I have known women who have expressed emotional difficulty with the overwhelming sensation of emptiness, even with a completely normal pregnancy and delivery.  Although, with an infant to care for, their hearts and minds become otherwise engaged.

When there is no little bundle to fill your arms and your heart, what fills the void within?  Following a pregnancy loss, the emptiness seeps through the boundaries of the physical and invades mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually, and I became easy prey to its callous indifference.  I felt sure that I needed to find a way to let God fill the emptiness.  For weeks I repeated Ephesians 5:18, “…be filled with the Spirit,” and begged God daily to fill me with His Spirit.  I tried to facilitate that through daily Bible study.  But no matter how much I read, no matter how often I prayed, I could not fight the nothingness that threatened to swallow me from the inside out.

In desperation, I wondered if the only thing that would ever be able to touch the ache, much less heal it, was another baby.  That was the object of my greatest desire.  I prayed, “Lord, if I could just have another baby, I would do everything so differently.  I would appreciate every minute.  I would sacrifice ten more years of sleep, if need be, without one complaint.  Please, Father.  I need a baby to heal this hole in my heart.  I just don’t think I will ever be able to feel complete again without one.”

One night I was driving home from a devotional with the teenage girls; four-year-old Eden was strapped discontentedly in the backseat.  She was overly-tired and therefore a hidden landmine in a field of emotion.  First, she fussed because Eli had gotten a balloon when he was with the boys, and she had gotten only a boring mirror (which just happened to be her favorite color).  Then she whined because she wanted to be with her Daddy instead of with me.  Whines became cries, which quickly morphed into sobs.  She stopped for a moment to listen as I explained that it hurt my heart a little that she was so upset, and she wanted to understand why.  I simply explained, “Well, because I love you, Eden.  And I was kinda hoping that you could just be happy to be with me.”

Almost as soon as the words escaped my lips, I knew that I had been given the slightest glimpse into the heart of the Almighty.  (Isn’t it strange how our earthly relationships do that so often?)  In that moment–shamefully–I had an inkling of understanding.  “I love you, Jamie.  And I was hoping that you could just be happy to be with Me.”

That understanding, however,  was still just a tiny mustard seed in my heart.  God continued to water it as I listened to His gentle explanation.  I remember an evening when I read Psalm 145.

14 The Lord upholds all who are falling

and raises up all who are bowed down.

15 The eyes of all look to you,

and you give them their food in due season.

16 You open your hand;

you satisfy the desire of every living thing.

17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways

and kind in all his works.

18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,

to all who call on him in truth.

19 He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;

he also hears their cry and saves them. (ESV)

I read verse 19 repeatedly.  “He fulfills the desire of those who fear him.”  Initially, as I read, I focused on my intense, unabating desire for another baby and found assurance in that He would fulfill that deepest desire of my heart if I remained faithful.  I must have read it twenty times.

Have you ever noticed, though, that if you say something over and over again, it begins to sound different to your ears with each repetition?  When I was teaching in the classroom, I illustrated the importance of voice inflection in the spoken word with a simple three-word sentence: I love you.  The first time I said it, I placed emphasis on the first word: I love you.  We discussed its meaning.  If I love you (as your teacher), then you should feel really special.  Then, I changed emphasis.  I love you.  I don’t just like you, I love you.  Finally, I love you.  As a unique individual.  Each time our focus shifted, the meaning of the entire statement shifted along with it.

This was exactly what happened as I read and reread verse 19.  My focus was shifting.  Instead of reading it, “He fulfills the desire of those who fear him,” I read it this way: “He (pause to let that sink in) fulfills the desire of those who fear him.”  Immediately my thoughts began swirling.  Perhaps the blessing is not in the fulfillment of desires but instead in the fact that He is the fulfillment of those desires.  Maybe it’s not so much about God giving me what I want as it is about God becoming what I want.  When they are seeking Him, He Himself fills the void in those who are empty.  God fulfills–full fills.  He fills me until I am full.  He is All in All.

I immediately began searching for more.  I needed to know if this was the answer.  I soon discovered Lamentations 3, and it has become an almost daily reading since.  I have found that I identify with the weeping prophet.  He says in verse 8, “Though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.”  In verse 17, “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.”  Eli’s words were a punch in the gut the day he said to me, “Mommy, it’s like you’ve forgotten how to have fun.”  He was right; happiness has been elusive.  So much so that I often felt, along with Jeremiah, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD” (Lamentations 3:18).  I felt hopeless that the empty ache within me would ever subside.  Hopelessness is such a dreadful feeling.

This, however,  is not the conclusion of the chapter.  The prophet goes on to say in verse 21, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.”  I stopped and reread: I have hope.  Hopelessness had gained hope anew.  Anxious to know exactly what it was that rekindled that flame within his heart, I found myself caught up in a melody I have sung for the majority of my life. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vv. 22-23).  For the first time, I laid hold upon the power of those words without losing their meaning in the notes of the song.

Then, finally, a reinforcement.  “‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul. ‘Therefore I will hope in him’”  (Lamentations 3:24).  Maybe it’s because I’ve been on such a strange food journey over the past several years, but when I think of portions, I think of food–the amount needed to satisfy.  The LORD is just what my soul needs in order to be satisfied.  He is my portion.  He fulfills my desires because He is my desire.  And in that, there is hope.  In that, I will choose to hope.

A song by Laura Story called “Blessings” explores the idea that perhaps some of God’s greatest mercies are found in life’s greatest struggles.  It concludes in this way:

What if my greatest disappointments

Or the aching of this life

Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?

I have endured great disappointment over the past year.  I have ached in ways I never knew possible.  Perhaps through the disappointment and through the ache, I have acquired a thirst that only my Father in His infinite wisdom can satisfy.

While we might not all have experienced preterm labor and the subsequent loss of a child, I expect that each of us is or will become acquainted with the ache of emptiness in some way.  In such times, may God grant us all the strength to continually seek out one of His greatest blessings: FULFILLMENT.